If You Only Have a Hammer…

by Mike Kinsey

February 3, 2009


During my interview by Sensei Sukh Sandhu and his students prior to being invited as a member of the Gi Yu Dojo, everyone asked, “So why do you want to train with us?”  I had thought a lot about that question before researching various schools and training halls, but now I had to try and verbalize my thoughts for the first time.  There are many times in my past that I look back upon and say, “Man… that was really stupid.”  I imagine a lot of people can relate to that when thinking about their teen and early twenty-something years.   I won’t get into any details, but I think a lot of those bad situations can be summed up with two general problems:

 1.    Thinking I was invincible.

 2.     Having zero situational awareness about what was happening around me.

Then, my life changed.  Growing up and getting married will do that to you.  I realized that it wasn’t just me anymore.  Most of my “I”s had to be replaced with “We”s.  Someone else was in my world.  In talking with many of my fellow students, I learned that people begin studying martial arts for a million different reasons.  It may sound corny or even chauvinistic to some, but the reason I sought training was because I found myself as the head of a family and I felt the moral thing to do was to take steps to learn to protect that family.  However, I traveled a long road before walking into the Gi Yu Dojo.  Several times before that day, I thought I had arrived at my goal only to realize that there is no final destination for what I am seeking.

I began by translating my hobby of target shooting and general plinking into self-defense firearm training.  I took several formal handgun courses and spent weekly time at the range improving my skills.  Eventually, I could accurately shoot while moving.  I could be effective while using cover and shooting from various positions.  I could draw a handgun from concealment and put shots on target in a little over a second.  I started to feel prepared that I could defend against a home invasion, a violent mugging, or some other life-threatening situation from an armed criminal. 

But what if something less likely occurred?  What if, for example, a Hurricane Katrina situation happened in my community?  Even less likely, what if we devolved into some post-apocalyptic Mad Max scenario where I had to defend the homestead from roving, maniacal gangs with horned helmets and shoulder pads?

That erased all of my complacency and got me searching once again.  I was back to square one.  

I bought an AR-15 and took tactical carbine classes.  Through training, I felt comfortable in knowing I could control a little more real estate should the skill ever be needed.  For reaching more distant targets, I attended Project Appleseed marksmanship clinics and acquired a Springfield M1A, a more appropriate long-distance battle rifle.  Thanks to a lot of practice and persistence, I could hit a man-sized target out to six hundred yards with nothing more than a web sling and iron sights.   This meant I could defend my family from a hypothetical bad guy anywhere from seven yards to over a quarter mile away!  I was feeling good.  I was feeling confident.  My hard work had paid off and it was time to relax and get back on the couch.  Then I read a line of text on some internet site, somewhere, which completely deflated that false sense of security.

“If you only have a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail”.

In acquiring skill with firearms, I had completely neglected the most likely self-defense scenarios of all.  What happens if I encounter a situation where employing lethal force is not morally or legally appropriate?  What if a drunk bull rushes me?  What if some guy takes a swing?  What if I’m tackled and find myself on the ground?  

All I had in my tool box was a sledgehammer.  I had practiced a lot in how to deal with lethal threats between seven and six hundred yards but I had no idea what to do if facing a threat one foot away and closing quickly. Obviously, I needed more tools.

This is what led to me walking into the Gi Yu Dojo, introducing myself, and trying to answer with a few words, “So why do you want to train with us?” 

Thankfully, they invited me back.

Along with our regular training, I soon started attending our weekly class on Sojutsu (“Art of the Spear”).  Being handed a yari that first day and trying to manipulate a weapon of its length and weight can be very humbling.   The movements and kata we practiced felt awkward, but those classes quickly became my favorite.  After studying Sojutsu under Sukh Sensei for almost a year, I started to draw some comparisons between wielding a spear and a firearm.  There are several similarities I first realized that are common to training with most weapons. 

The most important lesson in any combat art should be to always protect oneself first.  When fighting with a firearm, this includes being able to shoot while moving and effectively using cover and/or concealment.  When armed with a spear, it is important to use good technique, effective movement, and proper kamae to control or manipulate your opponent.  Learning to protect oneself by moving off the line of attack and not leaving unintentional openings is much easier said than done when working with a seven foot weapon. 

While many physical comparisons like that can be made concerning a yari and firearm, I find myself most drawn to some aspects that are a little more metaphysical.  For example, I am always amazed at the fear and uncertainty that can be imposed on an opponent when using a long distance weapon.  Don’t get me wrong. I am sure anyone that has trained in Kobudo can attest to the fact that being on the receiving end of a bokken, tanto, or unarmed attack can be extremely nerve-wracking.  However, that feeling is only intensified when trying to defend against an opponent yelling a kiai and armed with a much longer tool, like a spear.  Due to the distance an attacker can cover with a yari, it is a very intimidating weapon.  It is extremely difficult to remain focused while in its path. 

Throughout more modern times, the same has been true of the development and use of firearms.  While still being debated, the first personal firearms we would recognize were most likely developed many centuries ago in what is now Germany.  Those early examples were completely unreliable and would only fire less than half the time.  When they did function, they were extremely inaccurate.  Archers could more effectively attack an enemy with better results over longer distances.  However, early muskets were a formidable presence in any battle because of their perception of long distance effectiveness, loud roar, and considerable smoke they produced.  Warriors used the unnerving presence of firearms as one component in early battle strategy, even though they were usually ineffective at actually killing the enemy.  As we all know, firearms quickly evolved into very effective weapons and their results became more feared than their reputation. 

As a student of history, I enjoy reading everything I can about our American Revolution.  It is humbling to learn of our forefathers’ decision to blindly cast their destinies down the path that eventually (and thankfully) led to securing the freedoms we enjoy (and must defend) today.  America was founded as a Nation of Riflemen.  Common citizens used their privately owned rifles and aimed fire to help defeat an enemy armed with smooth bore muskets and antiquated military tactics that did not include the practice of “aiming”.  While British muskets could be accurate to about a hundred yards, colonists armed with rifles were able to accurately target and engage at least three times that distance. 

On April 19, 1775, when our War for Independence formally began in Lexington and Concord, colonial Riflemen were able to position themselves outside the effective firing range of the British Regulars and wreak havoc as they marched back to Boston.  One of our militia, fifty-five year old Hezekiah Wyman, continually raced his white horse ahead of the British column to a safe distance, dismounted, steadied a rifle across his saddle, and would drop several of the enemy before galloping to his next position outside the range of enemy fire.  The surviving British soldiers, members of the best trained and most feared military in the world, would live the rest of their days speaking fearfully about a tall man on a pale horse that calmly cut them to pieces for an entire afternoon.

I can only imagine the fear an unskilled opponent with a lesser weapon would feel when facing a trained Warrior and his yari in true battle.  I personally know how difficult it is to remain composed when facing a fellow student and a padded training spear in the friendly confines of our dojo.

Sensei Sukh Sandhu has spoken to his students about continually “honing a warrior’s edge”.  He explains that a true Warrior’s training will never be finished, as there is always another set of skills that needs perfected based on situation or distance involved.  We can sharpen and polish one section of a blade, but must not become fixated and therefore neglect another piece of the edge.  Our study of Sojutsu definitely emphasized his point.